“Sociopath” is a term that gets thrown around a lot, in a variety of contexts, and often with a good amount of assumptions and hyperbole thrown in for good measure. As a result, the actual definition of sociopathy can get a little bit muddy in the process. So what exactly defines a sociopath? What identifiable traits and qualities do sociopaths typically have? And can a person with sociopathy experience things such as love and affection the same way that people unaffected by sociopathy can? Today, Bestie aims to take a closer look at what psychology and mental health experts have to say about the sociopath, in order to answer some of these commonly misunderstood questions.
Let’s Start With The Basics
How can we objectively define and identify a sociopath? According to Psychology Today, sociopathy is described as “an informal term that refers to a pattern of antisocial behaviors and attitudes”. Typically, a person who is affected by sociopathy can usually be described thusly: while a sociopath may appear outwardly friendly, sincere, warm, and trustworthy, they also possess a weak moral compass and lack of empathy for others that can often result in dishonest, manipulative and reckless or aggressive behavior.
Sociopaths differ from people who are described as psychopaths because unlike psychopaths, sociopaths usually can still mentally differentiate between right and wrong, even if they continue to act in ways that are opposed to these understandings. Despite this, many people use the terms “sociopath” and “psychopath” interchangeably, leading to much of the confusion over just what exactly a sociopath really is.
Antisocial Personality Disorder
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders also describes sociopathy as being closely associated with another condition known as Antisocial personality Disorder. People affected by antisocial personality disorder are characterized by engaging in behavior that constantly serves to disregard and violate the rights of other people around them.
Like other personality disorders, this condition usually takes hold around adolescence, though a diagnosis for this disorder usually isn’t given to anyone under the age of 18. People with antisocial personality disorder typically exhibit manipulative, aggressive and irresponsible behavior, as well as frequent lying, impulsiveness and an overall lack of remorse for their more unsavoury actions. Clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly describes antisocial personality disorder like so:
“Those who suffer from this disorder often engage in self-serving behaviors that are harmful to others. These behaviors can include lying, manipulation, verbal and physical assaults, impulsivity, and deception. And these individuals often engage in actions that are illegal or bordering on illegality.”
So Far We’ve Established That People Described As Sociopaths Lack Empathy
Which can lead them to manipulate and disregard the emotions of others in pursuit of personal gain. Despite this, sociopaths and by extension, people with antisocial personality disorder often seem to have no trouble drawing romantic interest from others. And many of them seem to form close bonds with friends, family and loved ones the same as anyone else. So that begs the question: is this all part of an act, or are people who suffer from sociopathic tendencies still capable of genuine love and affection for others in spite of their lack of empathy and compassion?
According to professionals in the fields in the fields of psychology and mental health, signs would appear to point towards the answer being “no”.
According to psychologist Susan Masterson:
“Sociopaths value themselves above others […] They don’t bother to think outside the scope of what they want or need, and others’ feelings are either secondary or a non-issue for them.”
To put it more simply, sociopaths are always looking out for number one, by which we mean themselves. A sociopath’s personal needs and desires hold sway over the majority of decisions they make, and the way in which their decisions and actions may happen to affect others is considered inconsequential at best. A truly loving relationship is usually understood as being based on trust, collaboration, communication and compromise; all of which typically goes against the usual motivations of a sociopath. In other words, people with antisocial personality disorder may be incapable of real loving relationships because they are incapable of the things that are needed to facilitate that relationship, with lack of empathy being the biggest factor. That being said, while sociopaths might not be capable of love, they can certainly give off the appearance of being in love with someone.
According to forensic psychologist Darrel Turner
Sociopaths can potentially be talented actors when it comes to making others believe that they are capable of love. Turner writes:
“A sociopath can be really good at faking feelings of love […] It’s common when a sociopath enters into a relationship to behave very lovingly or otherwise affectionately toward their partner—at least at the beginning.”
Sociopaths can often be charming and charismatic, and if it suits their current needs, many of them can easily give off the appearance of a truly loving partner. However, once those needs have been met, the facade of love may eventually crumble away as the sociopath begins to show their true nature. According to Turner, people suffering from sociopathy will almost invariably become more controlling, manipulative, and derogatory over the course of a personal or romantic relationship. And because people with this mental health condition don’t feel empathy to others or remorse for their actions, you can’t expect them to change or ease up anytime soon, either. Regardless of whether or not someone actually has a diagnosable antisocial personality disorder, nobody should ever pursue or be forced to continue a relationship with someone who’s clearly only motivated by self-interest; because of this, you can see just how toxic this behaviour truly is.
So how can you potentially identify some of the red flags of sociopathy? According to therapist Bill Eddy, a sociopath can be identified as part of three steps that he refers to as the “WEB Method”: Words, Emotions, and Behaviour. The first step, Words, deals with the way a potential sociopath speaks to you. As Eddy puts it, sociopaths are fast talkers and frequent liars, and have a tendency to deal in extremes in terms of stories, promises and plans. Pay attention to what the person is saying to you: are they trying to build you up with lots of honeyed words and praise? Are they trying to break you down with shifting blame and threats? They might even switch back and forth between the two on a whim based on whichever one they deem more useful to get the leverage they want in the conversation. Sociopaths will also often attempt to find your weak spots and zero in on them, either to boost your ego or directly attack your most vulnerable traits.
The second step, Emotion, deals with the way a potential sociopath makes you feel. The words and actions of a sociopath can often instill you with extreme emotions such as fear, infatuation or even extreme sympathy. In conjunction with the previous step, Eddy suggests that you value your emotions over the potential sociopath’s words, and to trust your gut when it comes to what you think this person might be really after.
The final step is Behaviour, and deals with the way in which the potential sociopath acts or presents themselves. Eddy also refers to this step as “the 90 percent rule” and encourages people dealing with a potential sociopath to pay closer attention to the sociopath’s actions rather than their words. As Eddy describes it:
“Pay special attention to any extreme behavior—things they do that 90% of people would not. Ask yourself, Would I ever do that?”
Sociopaths may try to explain away extreme behaviour or actions by making excuses for them, and often try to shift the blame and responsibility for their actions off of themselves and onto others. Keep these three steps in mind the next time you’re forced to deal with a person who seems like they might be a little off, in order to avoid getting involved with a potential sociopath.
Sociopathy is a term that not a lot of people have a solid grasp on, in part due to its common confusion with other terms such as psychopathy. We hope that this video will provide you with a more concrete and specific understanding of sociopaths, as well as what characterizes and motivates them and what they’re capable of.